Conference files, lot 60 D 627. CF 320

Memorandum of Conversation, by the Special Adviser to the United States Delegation (Heath)1

top secret


  • Frederic-Dupont, New French Minister for the Associated States.
  • Donald R. Heath, Ambassador to Vietnam and Cambodia.

At yesterday’s session Mr. Frederic-Dupont, appointed the day before to be French Minister for the Associated States, with whom I became acquainted during his visit with a French Parliamentary Commission to Indochina two years ago, said he would like to talk with me. I saw him this morning. He is leaving for Paris this afternoon, returning here Monday and will be at the Monday conference session whether it deals with Korea or Indochina.

He said that while he had been interested in Indochina affairs for some years he had had no time since his appointment to brief himself on his new job. He had seen General Ely but only for three minutes and had come forthwith to Geneva. He started off by saying that he would speak with entire frankness although his ideas on the Indochina problem were not yet firm. He was a Frenchman but in these days of Communist menace he was not alone a Frenchman but a citizen of the free world. He believed thoroughly in the EDC and had had some slight success in converting colleagues to the necessity of prompt French ratification of the EDC treaty. He was firmly of the belief that any attempt to get along with Communists on the basis of peaceful negotiations would be a fatal futility unless such negotiations were backed up by force. Therefore should the free world decide that continuation of French war effort and sacrifices in Indochina was necessary he would go along repugnant though that course would be to present French public opinion.

On the other hand from long acquaintance with the Indochina situation he was afraid that whether at Geneva or on the field of battle some decision might be taken, as it so often had in the past in Indochina, to try for some small victory tomorrow without taking account of the possibility, that such decision might lead to a grave defeat at some future date.

It was conceivable, he said, that the Communists might back down and agree to French conditions as to the necessity of adequate neutral international control of an armistice, which would be a temporary victory for France but would be followed by Communist insistence [Page 1042] on free elections, which by reason of its democratic tradition, France could not successfully oppose and which would result in a real victory for communism in Vietnam and a profound humiliation for France, the United States and the free world.

The military situation was not good. The French had lost the fine corps of their Expeditionary Force at Dien Bien Phu. The Vietnamese national army was very shaky and the Vietminh were flushed with victory, fanatically disciplined and devoted. The French troops, of course, would fight with unimpaired morale since they were professional soldiers but it was not sure they could hold the Tonkin delta or even Hanoi.

The foregoing was evidently a prelude to his “provisional” opinion that the only solution was partition of Vietnam at the Col de Nuages just north of Hue which was, he argued, a defensible military line which would conserve the traditional capital of Hue, the center and the south which was much richer than Tonkin. He asked whether the United States attached great military importance to the holding of the Tonkin delta.

I replied that I understood our general military opinion considered the holding of Tonkin to be important to the point of being vital. I remarked that the abandonment of Tonkin would give the Vietminh—and the Chinese Communists—complete control of the Vietnamese population there. They could turn them rapidly into first class soldiers. I remarked that the Vietnamese government had taken a firm stand against partition of Vietnam and then went on to say that our military in Indochina and in Washington did not take a gloomy view of the French military position as a result of the loss of Dien Bien Phu. We very definitely thought something could be done about it. I said he undoubtedly knew we were exploring with the French and other countries the possibilities of strengthening the Franco-Vietnamese position. He said that he was not informed of any conversations with the French government so I forbore giving him any details, merely stating we were actively exploring with, I thought, prospects of success, the possibilities of adding to French-Vietnamese political and military assets. I also remarked that our experts were very dubious, to say the least, of the possibility of concluding any sure armistice in view of the difficulties of the terrain and certain Communist evasion and bad faith.

He observed that French public opinion had been greatly disheartened that neither France nor Great Britain had come to the aid of the French to save Dien Bien Phu. I said that there had been a last-minute approach to that end but it could hardly be expected that United States or other countries would react immediately and affirmatively [Page 1043] to the unexpected idea of immediate military intervention. Until a few weeks ago there had been no question of the United States intervening militarily in Indochina except possibly as a result of an overt Chinese Communist invasion. Neither France nor any other country had wanted American military forces to engage in that struggle. Frederic-Dupont said the only thing he could say was that he hoped the United States would make up its mind quickly what they were willing to do towards saving Indochina. I remarked here that I personally thought that prompt ratification of EDC would tend to take off Communist heat on Indochina. Faced with a militarily United Western Europe the Soviets might feel less inclined to back Communist military ventures in South East Asia.

He then returned to his theme of partition. He doubted that the dominant families in Cochin China would object to that solution if the central and southern Vietnam could be guaranteed by France, the United States and other powers. He was, of course, entirely insistent that there be no partition of Laos or Cambodia. France public opinion would favor supporting the monarchs of those two countries but was highly disinclined to support Bao Dai, who was staying on in France instead of putting himself at the head of his army. The average Frenchmen who could not afford to leave the boulevards for his vacation was rather jealous of Bao Dai staying comfortably at Cannes, while Frenchmen were dying for him in Indochina. He heard that Bao Dai was now planning to take the “cure” at Evian. This would have a really disastrous effect on French public opinion. In the French officers corps there was hardly a family that did not have a relative who had been taken prisoner or killed at Dien Bien Phu. Nearly a third of the officers and non-commissioned officers corps of France was serving in Indochina and suffering heavy continuing casualties.

I said that in his single talk with Bao Dai, some two weeks ago, the head of our delegation, General Smith, had raised the question of Bao Dai returning to Vietnam but that Bao Dai said he could not return until the independence treaty had been signed and until he could see what the outcome would be in Geneva; until he was clear whether France would continue supporting him in keeping up the fight against the Vietminh. I said that as far as I knew there had been no insistence by the French government that Bao Dai return to Vietnam at this moment. I had heard from the Vietnamese Foreign Minister that Bao Dai was coming shortly to Annecy. The Foreign Minister had asked General Smith whether he had any message for Bao Dai. I had replied that we had no communication to make but General Smith hoped before long he might have another talk with Bao Dai. Frederic-Dupont said he favored the idea of such a talk in the hope that we [Page 1044] would urge on Bao Dai the necessity of returning. He said he would write us a letter urging that General Smith talk with Bao Dai and persuade the latter to go back to his fatherland. He had very little hope of Bao Dai really doing anything very important although he was extremely intelligent, a very charming and rather frank person but he had been spoiled. Frederic-Dupont saw no clear signs of other leadership in Vietnam. He would like to find a Syngman Rhee. I observed that there probably was latent leadership in Vietnam. If France continued its military and financial support of Vietnam and we continued ours, together we might be able to insist successfully that Bao Dai comport himself as a Chief of a state in peril. At least we could make the try. Frederic-Dupont said he appreciated the talk and hoped it would be followed by others. He expects to see Ely and Salan over the weekend and Reynaud. He remarked it had been definitely determined that Salan should go as Ely’s deputy but that Cogny would retain his command in the north. He asked our opinion of Cogny. I said we had a very high one. I forebore any comment on Salan.

  1. Summary of conversation transmitted to the Department in telegram Secto 389, June 5. (396.1 GE/6–554)